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State Department Report Says ‘Reasonable to Assess’ Israel Violated International Law
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State Department Report Says ‘Reasonable to Assess’ Israel Violated International Law

The document doesn’t point to a specific incident in Gaza, but weapons shipments to Israel sit in limbo.

Happy Monday! We were prepared to consider that sorting U.S. presidents into Hogwarts houses might be a more valuable way to judge presidential records than the typical historian rankings. But they lost us when they put Woodrow Wilson in Ravenclaw, not Slytherin. 

Quick Hits: Today’s Top Stories

  • Russian forces opened up a new front in the northeastern Ukrainian region of Kharkiv on Friday, advancing toward villages and cities just across the border and forcing more than 4,000 Ukrainians to flee the fighting. Vovchansk, a city just a few miles from the Russian border, has been the site of constant fighting over the weekend, along with several other towns and villages in the northeast. The Russian military claimed that it had taken control of nine villages, but those claims have not yet been independently confirmed. “There are villages that have transformed from ‘a grey zone’ into a zone of fighting and invaders are attempting to dig in in several of them, while others serve for their further advance,” Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said in a statement on Sunday night. The city of Kharkiv, which is some 20 miles from the Russian border, remains under Ukrainian control.
  • Meanwhile, 15 people were killed and 20 injured in the partial collapse of an apartment building on Sunday in Belgorod, a Russian city near the border with Ukraine, according to local authorities. Russian law enforcement officials said the building had been struck by Ukrainian artillery, but the Russian Defense Ministry later claimed the damage came from fragments of a Ukrainian missile that Russian forces had shot down. 
  • Russian President Vladimir Putin replaced his defense minister, Sergei Shoigu, on Sunday, marking the most significant military leadership reshuffling since Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022. Shoigu, who had been defense minister since 2012 and faced increasing criticism from Russian military officials for how he’s conducted the war, will be replaced by Andrei Belousov—an economist who most recently served as deputy prime minister. Shoigu will become the head of Russia’s National Security Council. 
  • Some 300,000 people have left Rafah in the last week, according to the United Nations, as the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) expanded its operations and evacuation warnings in parts of the southernmost city in Gaza over the weekend. The Biden administration has reportedly offered Israel intelligence to help locate Hamas leaders and tunnels, as well as humanitarian aid for people in Gaza, in exchange for Israel forgoing a large-scale attack on Rafah. Meanwhile, fighting between the IDF and Hamas resumed over the weekend in previously cleared areas of northern Gaza, including in Jabalia and Gaza City. 
  • The State Department—in a report shared with Congress on Friday—suggested that Israel may have violated international law in its use of American-made weapons in Gaza. “It is difficult to assess or reach conclusive findings on individual incidents,” the report noted. “Nevertheless, given Israel’s significant reliance on U.S.-made defense articles, it is reasonable to assess that defense articles … have been used by Israeli security forces since October 7 in instances inconsistent with its [international humanitarian law] obligations or with established best practices for mitigating civilian harm.” On Sunday, Secretary of State Antony Blinken delivered some of his sharpest criticisms of the war effort, saying that Israel has not shared any plans for rebuilding or securing Gaza after the war and is “on the trajectory, potentially, to inherit an insurgency with many armed Hamas left or, if it leaves, a vacuum filled by chaos, filled by anarchy, and probably refilled by Hamas.”
  • Tens of thousands of demonstrators protested in the Georgian capital of Tbilisi overnight as the ruling party, Georgian Dream, prepares to pass a Russia-inspired foreign agents law that critics say will squash civil society and independent media in Georgia. The Legal Affairs Committee of the Georgian Parliament voted to approve the law on Monday in the legislation’s third hearing, meaning just one parliamentary vote remains before final passage.
  • Canadian authorities charged another Indian national with murder over the weekend in connection to the killing of Hardeep Singh Nijjar—a Sikh nationalist and Canadian citizen—last June in British Columbia that sparked a diplomatic rift between Canada and India. Canada alleges the shooting was potentially ordered by the Indian government, and Singh’s arrest follows the arrest of three other Indian nationals earlier this month who were charged with murdering Nijjar.
  • Flash floods across Afghanistan on Friday killed more than 300 people, mostly women and children, according to the United Nations and local authorities. Some 2,000 homes were destroyed by the heavy rainfall, and hundreds of people remain missing. 
  • A three-judge panel of the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia upheld Steve Bannon’s 2022 contempt of Congress conviction on Friday, paving the way for Bannon to serve his four-month prison sentence. However, he can still appeal the ruling to the full bench or the Supreme Court. Bannon, a close adviser to former President Donald Trump and former White House official, was convicted on two counts of contempt of Congress in 2022 for refusing to comply with a subpoena from the House January 6 Committee.

Biden Dangles Carrots and Sticks 

U.S. President Joe Biden and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speak prior to their statements and meeting in Tel Aviv on October 18, 2023. (Photo by BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP via Getty Images)
U.S. President Joe Biden and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speak prior to their statements and meeting in Tel Aviv on October 18, 2023. (Photo by BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP via Getty Images)

As the sun set in Israel on Sunday evening, the country marked its first Memorial Day since Hamas’ October 7 attack, when terrorists murdered some 1,200 people and kidnapped more than 200 others. About a quarter of those killed on October 7 are estimated to have been soldiers, and 272 Israel Defense Force (IDF) troops have died in the subsequent war against Hamas—now in its eighth month. There were soldiers among those Hamas kidnapped, too, including some who have been killed in captivity and whose remains are being held hostage. 

“Where are we supposed to go?” said the father of one deceased soldier whose body is being held by Hamas in Gaza. “There is no burial site for us to go to.”

As Israel remembers its war dead, the IDF has continued its “precision” strikes against Rafah, the southernmost city in Gaza and perhaps the last stronghold of Hamas in the enclave. But the operation has faced sharp pushback from its most important ally in recent days as President Joe Biden suggested he’d suspend certain weapons shipments to Israel if the targeted offensive turned into a full-scale invasion. On Friday, a State Department report called into question Israel’s adherence to international humanitarian law. 

Map via Joe Schueller.
Map via Joe Schueller.

The Israeli government has billed the invasion of Rafah as the last stand for Hamas in Gaza—though renewed clearing operations in the north through the weekend suggest that Hamas is still active elsewhere in the Strip. As we wrote last week, the IDF claims most of the remaining Hamas battalions are now operating out of Rafah, which is replete with Hamas-dug tunnels. Ongoing attacks on the nearby Kerem Shalom border crossing, including one that killed four Israeli soldiers earlier this month, have underlined Hamas’ significant presence in the area.

The IDF began to move into the outskirts of Rafah last week, ordering the evacuation of hundreds of thousands of people in the outskirts of the city before launching precision airstrikes against Hamas targets in the area and securing the Gazan side of the Rafah border crossing into Egypt. As fighting has continued over the weekend, the IDF has reportedly killed dozens of terrorists, uncovered weapons caches and tunnel shafts, and destroyed rocket launch sites used to target southern Israeli cities and towns in recent days.

Map via Joe Schueller.
Map via Joe Schueller.

The Biden administration has long maintained that a large-scale Israeli invasion of Rafah—without a substantive plan to protect the more than 1 million Palestinian civilians there, which Secretary of State Antony Blinken said Sunday the administration had not yet seen—was a so-called “red line.” And in a rare primetime interview with CNN on Wednesday, after weeks of disruptive and violent protests on U.S. college campuses against Israel’s war and the president’s support for it, Biden outlined what the U.S. ally’s punishment would be for going forward with the Rafah campaign. 

“I made it clear that if they go into Rafah—they haven’t gone in Rafah yet—if they go into Rafah, I’m not supplying the weapons that have been used historically to deal with Rafah, to deal with the cities—that deal with that problem,” Biden told CNN’s Erin Burnett

Earlier on Wednesday, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin told senators that the U.S. had “paused” the delivery of thousands of 2,000-pound bombs to Israel amid the looming Rafah operation but that the administration hadn’t made a final determination about whether or not to send them. “Civilians have been killed in Gaza as a consequence of those bombs and other ways in which [Israel goes] after population centers,” Biden said of those bombs in the interview.

Just one day before Biden’s comments, the president delivered a speech marking Holocaust Remembrance Day. “People are already forgetting,” he told the crowd, which included Holocaust survivors. “They’re already forgetting that Hamas unleashed this terror, that it was Hamas that brutalized Israelis, that it was Hamas who took and continues to hold hostages. I have not forgotten, nor have you, and we will not forget.” But the administration had reportedly already decided to halt weapons to Israel before Biden delivered his remarks. 

Since Wednesday, details on what exactly Biden meant by his announcement—which weapons are on the table, for example—have been sparse. The president seemed to suggest his administration would continue to replenish weapons systems like David’s Sling and the Iron Dome, which defend Israel against incoming rocket, missile, and drone fire. But if the goal is to limit civilian casualties, withholding systems like Joint Direct Attack Munitions (JDAMs) that turn “dumb” bombs into precision-guided munitions—as the administration seemingly did earlier this month—could result in more dead noncombatants, not fewer.

Despite multiple reports in recent weeks of halted weapons deliveries and sales, the Biden administration has been quick to say that the president’s warning is still mostly hypothetical since Israel hasn’t yet—by its estimation—launched a full-scale invasion. “I wouldn’t go so far as to say what we’ve seen here [in Rafah] in the last 24 hours connotes or indicates a broad, large-scale invasion or major ground operation,” National Security Council spokesman John Kirby told reporters on Friday. “It appears to be localized near the crossing and largely with the forces they had put there at the beginning.” The IDF likewise says its operations in southern Gaza remain limited in scope.

“We’re not walking away from Israel’s security,” Biden said on Wednesday. “We’re walking away from Israel’s ability to wage war in those areas.” 

Retired Rear Adm. Mark Montgomery, who once managed U.S. military-to-military relations with Israel, said the Biden administration’s policy is a misunderstanding of Israel’s position and of deterrence. “This is a nonsensical statement for a country that’s under threat on five axes,” Montgomery told TMD. “[Israel] can’t fight five defensive battles. It can’t all be deterrence by denial. They have to have the ability to do deterrence by cost imposition, and that’s what they need to do to Hamas right now. … If they were to stop now, they would have failed in their deterrence effort.” 

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu seemed unbowed last week. “If we have to stand alone, we will stand alone,” Bibi said Thursday. “If we need to, we will fight with our fingernails.” 

It’s not clear what kind of weapons stocks Israel has available if Biden does put some kind of widespread weapons pause in place. The U.S. has long been required by law to maintain Israel’s “qualitative military edge” in the region—never providing other Middle Eastern countries with more sophisticated weaponry than it gives Israel—and since October 7, the U.S. has reportedly provided its closest Middle Eastern partner with tens of thousands of weapons. In April, Biden signed into law supplemental funding to the tune of about $16 billion for Israel’s defense. 

If U.S. aid does start to slow down, Montgomery told TMD, “What it really means is [Israel] can probably execute the Hamas operation, the Gaza operation, but this would put them in deeper extremis on defeating Hezbollah in Lebanon quickly. They could probably still do it, but they’d be doing it a lot uglier.” The Iranian-backed terrorist group in Lebanon has launched near-daily attacks on Israel since Hamas’ October 7 attack, forcing tens of thousands of people from their homes in the north. 

In what could be read as an object lesson in the state of U.S.-Israel relations of late—bouncing between criticism and solidarity—the State Department on Friday released a report suggesting it was “reasonable to assess” that Israel had used U.S.-supplied weapons in incidents that violated international humanitarian law (IHL). At the same time, it said the U.S. government didn’t have access to sufficient evidence to point to a single instance where it could definitively say that was the case, all while emphasizing that “a country’s overall commitment to IHL is not necessarily disproven by individual IHL violations, so long as that country is taking appropriate steps to investigate and where appropriate determine accountability for IHL violations.” The authors of the report said Israel has done so since the beginning of the war.

The report also emphasized that Hamas “has embedded itself deliberately within and underneath the civilian population to use civilians as human shields,” and “intentionally uses schools, hospitals, residential buildings, and international organization facilities for military purposes.” 

With an indefinite ruling on whether the IDF had violated IHL, the Biden administration can continue to provide Israel weapons under U.S. law, even if it’s hesitant to do so as a matter of policy. But Republican lawmakers are moving to force Biden’s hand later this week. GOP Rep. Steve Scalise of Louisiana, the House majority leader, said Saturday that the House would vote this week on the “Israel Security Assistance Support Act,” which would require the “prompt delivery” of aid to Israel on penalty of State Department and Defense Department appropriations being withheld. It’s possible the bill could get some support from House Democrats, 26 of whom signed a letter to the White House last week expressing concern about the suspension of weapons shipments. 

As the sun sets later today, Israel will begin a perhaps subdued celebration of its independence—following on Memorial Day’s heels to show that the country’s existence is inextricably linked to the sacrifice of its people. As strained as relations currently are between the Jewish state and the first country to recognize it, they may not stay that way forever. “[Israel] can’t do this alone,” Montgomery said. “I know they think they can do it alone. They cannot do this alone. They need to have one good ally—one good ally with a great defense industrial base. And that’s the United States. And so we’re going to have to solve this problem, when it’s over. We’re going to have to resolve it and move on as allies.”

Worth Your Time

  • Writing for Defector, Puja Changoiwala explored how some Indian citizens have been tricked into fighting in Russia’s war against Ukraine. “When 23-year-old Mohammed Sufiyan left India for Moscow on Dec. 17 of last year, he assumed that he would be working as a helper in a Russian government office,” Changoiwala wrote. “He had been promised a monthly salary of up to ₹100,000 ($1,196) and, a year later, Russian citizenship. Instead, a few days after he landed in Moscow, Sufiyan was sent to a military training camp for 15 days, and then was shipped off to the Russia-Ukraine border to fight on behalf of the Russian forces.”
  • Ross Douthat argued in the New York Times that our foreign policy discussions are lacking in moral realism. “Seeing statecraft as a tragic balancing of evils is still essential, especially amid the kind of moral fervor that attends a conflict like Israel’s war in Gaza,” he wrote. “The alternative is a form of argument in which essential aspects of the world, being inconvenient to moral absolutism, simply disappear. For example, reading the apologia for pro-Palestinian protests from certain left-wing intellectuals, you have a sense of both elision and exaggeration, a hype around Israeli moral failures—it’s not enough for a war that yields so many casualties to be unjust, if it’s wrong it must be genocide—that ends up suppressing the harsh implications of a simple call for peace. … Maybe the Gaza war is unjust enough, and Israeli goals unachievable enough, that there’s no alternative to vindicating Hamas’s blood-soaked strategy. But you have to be honest about what you’re endorsing: a brutal weighing-out of evils, not any sort of triumph for ‘universally desirable’ ideals.”

Presented Without Comment

BBC News: UK Ban On Selling Arms To Israel Would Strengthen Hamas, Says [Foreign Secretary] David Cameron

Lord Cameron said the last time he was urged to end weapons sales to Israel, when three Britons were killed in an airstrike on aid workers in Gaza, “a few days later there was a brutal attack by Iran on Israel.” Just to simply announce today that we will change our approach on arms exports, it would make Hamas stronger, and it would make a hostage deal less likely,” he adds.

Also Presented Without Comment

The Guardian: Trump Praises Fictional Serial Killer Hannibal Lecter During Rally Speech

“Has anyone ever seen ‘The Silence of the Lambs’? The late, great Hannibal Lecter. He’s a wonderful man. He often times would have a friend for dinner. Remember the last scene? ‘Excuse me, I’m about to have a friend for dinner,’ as this poor doctor walked by. ‘I’m about to have a friend for dinner.’ But Hannibal Lecter. Congratulations. The late, great Hannibal Lecter.”

Also Also Presented Without Comment

NBC New York: Actor Steve Buscemi Bloodied and Bruised After Punch to the Face on NYC Street

In the Zeitgeist

The trailer for Francis Ford Coppola’s Megalopolis dropped last week. Coppola has been developing the film for decades and spent $120 million of his own money to finance it. The famed director described the film as a Roman epic.

Toeing the Company Line

  • The Monthly Mailbag (🔒) is back, and this time, TMD’s deputy editor, Grayson Logue, is in the hot seat. You can submit your questions for him here.
  • In the newsletters: Kevin unpacked how the pandemic radicalized a large portion of Americans, the Dispatch Politics crew reported on Haley Republicans’ frustrations with Biden’s Israel policy, Jonah eulogized the Tea Party movement, Nick dissected (🔒) Trump’s “mandate for disaster” if he’s reelected, and Chris outlined (🔒) the faults with Biden’s pursuit of the median voter.
  • On the podcasts: On this weekend’s episode of The Remnant, Jonah ruminated on Biden’s Israel policy, the Cult of Youth, and the war against all things normal. On today’s Dispatch Podcast, Jamie interviews Bill Ayers, co-founder of the far-left Weather Underground, about the far-left’s view of Israel.
  • On the site over the weekend: Tal Fortgang dove into Abigail Shrier’s new book, Bad Therapy, Guy Denton reviewed Luca Guadagnino’s new film, Challengers, and Jeffrey Bilbro explored the fragmented moral culture of American colleges and universities. 
  • On the site: John reports on the Libertarian Party’s evolving relationship with Trump. 

Let Us Know

What do you think of Biden’s threat to block weapons to Israel?

Mary Trimble is the editor of The Morning Dispatch and is based in Washington, D.C. Prior to joining the company in 2023, she interned at The Dispatch, in the political archives at the Paris Institute of Political Studies (Sciences Po), and at Voice of America, where she produced content for their French-language service to Africa. When not helping write The Morning Dispatch, she is probably watching classic movies, going on weekend road trips, or enjoying live music with friends.

Grayson Logue is the deputy editor of The Morning Dispatch and is based in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Prior to joining the company in 2023, he worked in political risk consulting, helping advise Fortune 50 companies. He was also an assistant editor at Providence Magazine and is a graduate student at the University of Edinburgh, pursuing a Master’s degree in history. When Grayson is not helping write The Morning Dispatch, he is probably working hard to reduce the number of balls he loses on the golf course.

Peter Gattuso is a reporter for The Morning Dispatch, based in Washington, D.C. Prior to joining the company in 2024, he interned at The Dispatch, National Review, the Cato Institute, and the Competitive Enterprise Institute. When Peter is not helping write TMD, he is probably watching baseball, listening to music on vinyl records, or discussing the Jones Act.